While Simcoe County schools boards have turned extra attention to dealing with anti-Black racism in schools over the past year, some local students are saying the incremental change being made isn’t happening fast enough to address issues Black students are dealing with day-to-day.
So some Simcoe County students are taking matters into their own hands.
In February, 17-year-old Collingwood Collegiate Institute student Anisha Bensdira launched her own podcast in collaboration with the Collingwood Youth Centre called In Your Skin, where she invites local guests to discuss real-life perspectives revolving around racial struggles and education.
“My episodes proudly present various community members who provide their perspective on experiences they have had,” said Bensdira. “Racial discussions can be very uncomfortable, but having them in a casual safe space alleviates the pressure that is often present.”
The first episode of the podcast was released on Feb. 2, where Bensdira interviews fellow student Isaiah Mulcare who grew up in Brampton until 2015, at which time he moved to Collingwood. The duo discusses what it was like growing up as a racial minority in a predominantly white, rural area.
“We cannot ignore harmful discriminatory actions, oppression, or systemic situations any longer, it is important that we voice our opinions so that we can address and resolve any issues that stand in the way of bettering our community,” said Bensdira. “With that being said, these conversations are crucial to discuss, any subliminal concerns that go unnoticed can be acknowledged in a fun and now engaging way that gets everyone listening.”
Bensdira says that while COVID-19 has put a kink in scheduling, the podcast is intended to be posted biweekly to the Collingwood Youth Centre's YouTube page.
Others like Bensdira are asking why the onus is on students address anti-Black racism in their school.
Keliah Casey, a 17-year-old student in Grade 12 at Innisdale Secondary School in Barrie, says she still deals with racism at her school.
“Racism in my school happens all the time,” said Casey. “I feel like a lot of times, students are afraid to speak up about it, because there isn’t really anybody... who students would feel comfortable enough to go to, especially Black students. We don’t have anybody at the school who would understand our experience.”
Casey references a recent pilot project undertaken by the public school board to hire a graduation coach for Black students. The pilot is taking place at Bradford District High School and Nantyr Shores Secondary School in Innisfil.
“I feel that Innisdale would benefit off of that,” said Casey.
Casey says her school, as well as many others in Simcoe County, do have a practice of having an assembly at the beginning of the school year to address issues such as racism, homophobia and bullying.
“(Administration) talks about things that aren’t allowed, and racism is on the list. But, they don’t really enforce this rule,” said Casey. “I’ve been in classes where teachers will say things, like the n-word, and then say it’s for teaching purposes. I’ve also had experiences with other students in the halls. Kids saying the n-word, it happens all the time.”
“There’s definitely been times when teachers will walk by and not say anything. We all hear it. They just don’t do anything,” she said.
Casey shares a story that occurred in a French class she was in about two years ago. Prior to this occurrence, Casey says the teacher had stated at the beginning of the term that there would be some difficult conversations that happened in the class and if students were uncomfortable they were welcome to leave the class for those discussions.
“My French teacher decided to have a discussion in front of the whole class about why she feels (the n-word) shouldn’t be used by people of the Black race. That has nothing to do with French,” said Casey.
“Students were putting up their hands to provide input on why they thought everybody should say it, or nobody should say it.”
“I’m supposed to be learning about how to speak French. I was very uncomfortable. I was one of the only Black students in that class. I felt shaky. I had to leave,” she said.
Later, Casey says the teacher sat down with her to discuss what had occurred.
“I was expecting an apology, or something like that. Instead, she just continued to explain her point. I didn’t feel great about it at all, and I never took French again,” said Casey.
Casey says it can feel alienating to be the only Black student in a white classroom.
“I’ve definitely had this experience a lot, where a teacher will bring up a certain topic, and all heads will turn to look at me. My immediate reaction is (being) uncomfortable and fear. When I have another Black student in the class, it is comforting for me,” she said.
Daryl Halliday, superintendant of education and Irfan Toor, principal of equity, diversity and inclusion both with the SCDSB, spoke with CollingwoodToday.ca to discuss how the school board is dealing with these types of situations in schools.
“Our belief is that the n-word is deeply offensive, it’s racist language and it’s unacceptable,” said Halliday. “What we would hope is our staff are intervening when this is reported to them and they’re addressing it. It is critical. We don’t want this word used at all in our schools.”
While Halliday says the school board doesn’t have a specific policy related to the n-word, they do have umbrella policies when it comes to diversity and inclusion that words motivated by hate or prejudice aren’t acceptable.
“We talk about the impact when the word is used,” said Toor. “There’s no need to say the word out loud. We provide a lot of alternative resources (to teachers) so the resources they’re using don’t include the word.”
While Halliday acknowledges there are challenges that come with policing language and behaviours, it is still important for teachers and administrators across the board to take action if they hear the n-word used. In the past, he says there have been a range of discipline options used in situations of racist language in schools.
Overall, Toor said, the school board has made major strides this year overall when it comes to anti-Black racism, but that doesn’t mean their work on diversity and inclusion is done.
“We will always have more to do. I feel like, compared to two, five or 10 years ago, a lot of our schools did a lot more this year than they’ve done in the past. That doesn’t mean that that’s good enough,” said Toor. “There’s so much access to resources, that everybody should be able to find a way to incorporate these positive stories around representation without the focus being on slavery and the Underground Railroad.”
Casey says she has had more recent experiences where she’s raised questions about teaching methods on subjects such as Black Lives Matter or slavery and has been met with questions of her asking how things should be done differently, which is a good first step, but also gives her pause.
“It isn’t my job as a student to tell a teacher how to teach. I shouldn’t be giving teachers PowerPoints or making tools for teachers to bring to their classes. If I (raise) criticism, that’s something teachers should know how to deal with because that is their role,” said Casey.
For Black History Month, which ran for the month of February, Casey said she was dismayed that the only way she could find the school had intended to acknowledge the month was to have it mentioned briefly on the morning announcements. While the school board had planned other events through the diversity, equity and inclusion department such as guest speakers at the board level, Casey felt it wasn’t enough.
“So, me and a few other students decided to do something,” said Casey. “The fact that students had to go to administration to ask for something more to be done was unacceptable. I feel like these things should have already been planned by the school.”
Casey, as well as other students across Simcoe County, put together a 15-minute video talking about their own experiences, as well as sharing key moments in Black history both past and present, in Canada and the U.S.
The Simcoe County District School Board shared the video on their social media page.
While some strides have been made – Casey references round table discussions, workshops and panels she has attended through the school board – she still feels more can be done.
“They are trying to do things for Black students, but it’s definitely not enough,” she said.
Looking forward, Casey says she hopes school administrations, including Innisdale’s, take more time to consider the needs of minority students.
“As of right now, I feel they do the bare minimum. It does an injustice. It shows they don’t understand that we have a completely different struggle,” she said.
Shelly Skinner is president of UPLift Black. The non-profit organization was formed in the summer of 2020 to increase the visibility and socio-economic development of Black people based in Simcoe/Muskoka. The organization has expanded services over time to include book clubs, advocacy, education, addressing food insecurity and supporting Black-owned businesses.
One of the first initiatives taken on last summer was a Youth Care Package Project where the organization handed out packages to local Black youth.
More than 250 families county-wide participated.
“We also interviewed those families about their lived experiences and the needs of the community, and that’s how we formed our services,” said Skinner.
While Skinner says she can’t share others’ experiences to respect privacy, she does have stories to share about her own children’s experiences in the local school system.
“I have two children who are very different shades of Black. The validity of them being siblings is questioned on a regular basis,” said Skinner.
Skinner said the consistent use of the n-word in schools is also something that concerns her.
“I know it’s used in hip-hop culture, but it’s meant to be used as reclaiming of the word within the Black community to take away the weight of how destructive that word has been. It shouldn’t be used by anyone outside of the Black community,” she said. “There’s still a lot of struggle. It’s almost as if the teachers think it’s OK as well because when complaints go through, the standard (response) is, ‘There’s really nothing we can do about it.’”
While Skinner acknowledges that monitoring language can be challenging, the n-word is different because of the historic context.
“Because the n-word is rooted in so much oppression, it needs to be held to a higher regard when it comes to discipline,” she said.
On a personal level, Skinner says she has had to work for years to come to terms with her own experiences within school systems.
“It took me a long time to be able to recognize those microaggressions as racism. There’s still so much work to be done. Every student should feel safe, seen and supported,” she said.
Recently, the UPLift Black has started working with the public school board to create a Black youth club at Fred C. Cook Elementary School in Bradford, with the intention to expand the program to other schools in the future.
To learn more about UPLift Black, click here.